Fireflies (page 2)
by Nene Adams © 2001
- All rights reserved
- Dogs of War
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Courtyard of the Green Willow
11 a.m., the second Hour of the Snake
Cords stood out in her neck and bulging veins
snaked across her forehead as the horrible, wailing sound went on
and on. Her fingernails dug deeply into her palms, drawing blood.
Ryoko's painfully thin body convulsed, spine arching so high that
it seemed likely her backbone would snap in half.
The rice she lay on began to smoke and turn
black as it sucked demon poisons from her body. Sun Moon nodded
and several priests rushed towards the bed, hands outstretched to
hold her in place while the spells did their work.
The priests didn't have a prayer.
As Ryoko wailed again, an answering scream
came from a room close by, followed by a deep, rumbling howl. Oni-bi,
the dancing fireballs that heralded supernatural forces at work,
suddenly popped into existence and began to whizz around the room.
Flames dripped from the flying orbs, causing even more chaos. Ladies,
servants, nobles and priests were jammed tightly within the confined
space with no room to maneuver and their highly flammable kimonos
began to smolder.
Some beat out their flaming sleeves and whimpered,
eyes rolling crazily. Others hunkered down and trembled. All were
convinced that the end of the world had come.
The demon fires were like crazed firefly
ghosts, dipping and swooping overhead while their victims cringed
Ayumi could sense it; a subtle trembling
in the atmosphere, a roiling cloud of unstable emotions that threatened
to spill over and engulf the entire room. The situation was ripe.
It would only take a single, simple trigger...
On the bed, Ryoko screamed, echoed by a lady
in waiting whose nerve finally broke. The woman leaped up and began
clawing her way through the packed mass of people.
The raw tension in the air shattered and
the crowd erupted in absolute, mindless panic
A mob surged towards the narrow door, breaking
through the paper screened walls, trampling one another in their
frenzy to escape. Those outside the room were caught up in the craze
and they, too, added to the general chaos.
Ayumi grabbed Kimiko, the samurai using her
squat, muscular body to deflect the bodies that hurtled around them.
Ignoring the panic stricken stream, the exorcist
ripped a long hair from his medium's head and tossed it over Ryoko's
head, drawing the thin binding so tight that a necklet of blood
drops shimmered on the woman's throat. Slapping his fan over her
face, Sun Moon roared a spell; a mirror shattered, spraying fragments
of glass everywhere.
Kimiko whimpered, clinging to Ayumi
in desperation as the crush surged around them.
A palace ga-domen with fear-crazed
eyes suddenly drew his sword and began slashing at random, screaming
The edge of his katana swept down
towards Kimiko - and was caught in Ayumi's upthrust hand so skillfully
that her flesh was uninjured.
She jerked the sword out of his nerveless
grasp and waved it over her head, bellowing, "Out of my way! Make
room or by Buddha, I will cut you all down!"
Demon fires bobbed in the air, sizzling gently.
While the crowd melted around them, Ayumi took a swing at one of
the oni-bi, snarling. "Kuso shite shinezo! If you
flee you face King Emma, but if you stay, you must face me! Go now
or die shitting!"
Kimiko could feel the furious beating of
Ayumi's heart; the rhythm thudded through her palms, tangled around
her veins, bolstered her own faint pulse and made her liver flop
over in an ecstatic burst of pure love.
There was a sound like a sigh and the oni-bi
The entire chaotic episode took mere seconds
to resolve, although it seemed they had been in the midst of a sea
of hysterical humanity for hours. Ayumi and Kimiko both panted;
the samurai was covered in a thin sheen of sweat.
The medium's plump face was twisted in agony.
She grunted and opened her mouth wide, tongue straining at the air.
Sun Moon slid his fan down Ryoko's body,
mumbling spells in an arcane language, while twisting the hair around
the lady's neck tighter and tighter. Then he half turned and slapped
the fan on top of the medium's head.
Suwa Denbe stumbled into the room. "My daughter..."
he said hoarsely, swaying on his feet. His face was a ghastly grey
color. "My son..."
By dint of great effort, Kimiko managed to
pry her hands away from Ayumi's body. "Is it Moth? Has she been
Denbe shook his head. "Iye! First
my child, then my wife... now the gods have cursed me again." He
rolled his eyes to Heaven. "What have I done, what evil have I committed,
that you despise me so? Am I so different than other men?"
He fell to his knees, knocking his forehead
against the mats. "Gomen nasai... gomen nasai... gomen nasai..."
Ayumi touched Kimiko's cheek. "Knowing our
noble and brave monkey-samas, they won't stop running until they
reach the coast and they will probably gather half the populace
with them on the way. I do not want to leave you..."
"But you must." Kimiko rubbed her face against
Ayumi's hand. "Go and see what has happened to Cricket and the baby.
I will try and find a servant to take a message to Captain Saburo."
Ayumi turned to go, the confiscated sword
dangling from her fist. She was stopped by a soft touch on her sleeve.
"Be careful," Kimiko whispered.
The samurai nodded and Kimiko turned her
attention to Lord Denbe, who was still beating his forehead against
"Is this any way for a nobleman to act?"
she asked acidly, hands on her hips. Further comment was interrupted
by a full throated wail from the medium.
"Foolish man!" the fat girl hissed, eyes
wide and unblinking.
The exorcist drew himself up. On the bed
behind him, Ryoko lay quietly, unmoving. Every grain of rice on
the mattress had turned black but the lady appeared to be sleeping
Denbe sat up and stared at the medium.
"Stupid, proud, arrogant worm! You spurn
love offered freely and spit on the heart that is given to you!
You deserve to be punished!"
Sun Moon pulled a folded book from the front
of his robes. "Who art thou?" he demanded in the most formal language.
"Tell me thy name, foul spirit, or I shall destroy the vessel thou
hast possessed, trapping thee forever in the chains of karma and
The medium writhed despite her bonds. "Rather
ask who I am not!" she replied scornfully. "In number I outrival
the Myriads of Myriads; I am always and forever; I am that which
dares not show itself beyond the shadows, and yet I am more powerful
than the sun."
Kimiko watched the exchange with a combination
of fascination and dread. Was it her imagination, or was the medium's
face getting thinner and longer, more wedge-shaped? Was there a
suggestion of scales on the girl's cheekbones? When she spoke, did
her tongue seem to be... split?
"I command that you reveal your true nature!"
Sun Moon cried. "By Fudo Demon-Queller, I so command!"
The medium hissed again. Her complexion was
definitely taking on a greenish tinge. "Aiiii! You cannot touch
me!" The pupils of her eyes were elongated slits set into pools
of brilliant, eerie blue. "You cannot kill me for I do not exist!"
"What... what have you done with my children?"
The medium's head swayed back and forth in
a hypnotic rhythm. "They, too, deserve to be punished. Have they
not stolen the regard that you should have reserved for another?"
The stench of scorched feathers abruptly
filled the air. Sun Moon snatched the now burning fan away from
the possessed medium and flung it to the floor.
"I will destroy you piece by piece," the
spirit promised, making the medium's face swell grotesquely. "You
will beg for death before I am finished."
There was a thunderclap so loud that the
roof beams vibrated and groaned in protest...
And then it was gone.
The medium slumped forward, unconscious.
Ryoko woke and after a weak struggle managed
to lever herself upright with an elbow. Her voice shook as she asked,
"Is everything well, husband?"
Suwa Denbe's hand went to his sword... and
fell away. "No, honorable wife," he said with finality. "It is not."
"Please forgive me," Ryoko replied humbly.
"I must have fallen asleep. Allow me to fetch you some tea, my lord."
It was clear that she had no memory of her former illness.
Lord Denbe nodded. "Yes. Tea." His shoulders
slumped in defeat.
Kimiko and the exorcist exchanged a glance.
Both had the feeling that things were not
Cricket and Little Brother were
gone, vanished as completely as Moth and Small Water Dragon before
Ayumi fingered a torn blanket. The room where the children had
slept was free of blood but still looked as if a huge fight had
But a fight between who... or what?
There were some curled shavings of wood near the baby's empty sleeping
sack. The children's nurse, Miya, was dead; her rapidly cooling
body was draped across Cricket's bed and it was clear from the fearsome
wounds that she had defended her charges to the very end.
Ayumi squatted next to the dead woman, avoiding stepping on the
bluish-gray coils of intestines that bubbled from the gash in Miya's
abdomen. She picked up a wood shaving and held it to her nose, closing
her eyes in concentration and trying to ignore the stench of cut
It is freshly cut, she thought. Made of aloes wood and
painted white on one side. Ayumi opened her eyes and frowned.
Something was not quite right and she felt as if the answer lay
on the tip of her tongue...
A movement in the corner of her eye shifted her attention. Ayumi
rolled out of the way just as a sword swung down, biting into the
"Assassin!" Captain Saburo said furiously, readying himself for
another strike. "You have no honor!"
Ayumi blocked the man's next thrust with the katana in her
hand. "I have done nothing wrong," she replied, getting to her feet.
"You are mistaken."
"You have killed the nurse. What did you do with the children?"
Saburo's eyes narrowed and his mustache bristled. "How much money
does it take to buy a ninja, eh? Who is your master?"
"I am not a ninja!" Ayumi declared. She easily blocked Saburo's
blows, struggling to suppress her samurai training and not return
a killing strike.
Their swords screeched together, almost drawing sparks, the thousand-layer
steel blades singing shrilly in protest.
Saburo grunted. He was not as young as he used to be and the days
of gallant generalship, when he could ride all day, drink all night
and still rise as fresh as a carnation to lead the troops were long
behind him. Initially fueled by fury, he knew he could not possibly
match Ayumi's youth and strength. He still had cunning, however,
and the old dog could teach the pup a trick or two.
"Eeeee!" he yelled, summoning all his ki energy for one
final strike. He milked the hilt of his katana, holding it
at a forty-five degree angle away from his body, and bulled towards
Ayumi, coming up under her sword and making a stabbing thrust at
her kidneys. It was a battle tactic never known to fail.
Impossibly, it did. Ayumi half turned and bent backwards like a
willow, trapping Saburo's katana with her back and jerking
it from his grasp as she fell. As soon as her shoulders touched
the floor she kicked out hard with her feet, sliding her body between
his legs, her own sword sweeping up... and it was over.
Saburo stared at the tip of Ayumi's blade, which was centered between
his eyes. She was flat on her back staring up at him, a fierce grimace
twisting her face.
A bead of sweat rolled down the Captain's nose, dropped on the
curved tip of the woman's katana, and slid down the length
"I have no quarrel with you," Ayumi said through gritted teeth.
"Look at the nurse's body. Look!"
Slowly, Saburo's gaze shifted sideways.
"Do those look like stab wounds to you? With such ragged edges?
Miya was attacked by an animal, not a ninja, you bakayarou!"
The Captain nodded, letting out the breath he had been holding.
"I see. Please forgive my error, honorable samurai." There was a
pause and he added, "I humbly apologize for believing you were a
ninja. Gomen nasai."
Ayumi withdrew her sword and released the older man. "Shigata
ga nai," she answered shortly, getting up from the floor. "Fools
cannot help being foolish."
"And laws cannot help but be enforced," Saburo said. "You do know
that drawing your sword within the confines of the city and the
palace is an offense punishable by death."
"It is not mine," Ayumi replied, letting the katana fall
to the mats. "I took it from one of your ga-domen who was
about to turn half the palace nobility into sushi."
The Captain smoothed his mustache. "Do I need to arrange the misfortunate
idiot's funeral?" he asked.
"If he survived the mob in Lady Ryoko's room, then the answer is
no." Ayumi casually planted a foot on the wood shavings. "I suggest
you summon someone to take care of Nurse Miya."
"Did you see any trace of Lord Denbe's children?"
"No. Not so much as a hair."
Saburo nodded. "Very well. I will station
more guards in this end of the palace..."
"What do you mean?"
Ayumi scooped the man's katana from
the floor and gently ran her thumb along the edge, leaving a thin
film of blood. It was dishonorable to the soul of the blade to return
it to its scabbard unblooded.
She presented the sword hilt first. "My mistress
is in danger. I would prefer that you assign some guards to her
chambers. Kimiko-sama is being married to Lord Denbe soon. Considering
what has happened to his principal wife, secondary wives and his
children... do you not think my lady has the greatest need?"
"Perhaps." Saburo accepted his katana,
pulled a wad of paper tissues from his sleeve, and carefully cleaned
the blade with deliberate strokes while he considered the woman's
request. "Very well. I will split the guard detail equally. Now
I must see to my duties. I suggest you see to yours."
Ayumi waited until his bulky form had disappeared
before she collected the wood shavings and tossed them into a nearby
She would have to see Snow Fairy again...
But first, she had an appointment with the
court's biggest gossip - Lady Naisho.
- Bird and Beast Song
One leaf lets go
Totsu hito-ha chiru
And then another falls
Kaze no ue
High on the wind.
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Hall of Little Birds
2 p.m., the first Hour of the Sheep
As she strolled down the Hall of Little Birds on her way to Lady
Naisho's rooms, Ayumi checked the wire seal on her sword. She'd
repaired it again but one more break would leave the metal thread
so brittle it would be impossible to fix. This particular type of
wire was used only by the Ministry of Law and their supply was well
guarded; she had no way of getting more. The samurai was tempting
fate - not to mention execution - but her exposure to palace intrigue
had left Ayumi with an uncontrollable need to keep her sword free
in its sheath.
It was storming outside, a wild gale from the mountains that smelled
of snow and salt. Wind blew against the paper shutters, rattled
shoji in their tracks, and smashed icy raindrops against
the roof, accompanied by the sound of thunder and distant flashes
of lightning. Thunder Guards jogged around the Imperial compound;
dressed in red brocade and round lacquered hats, they plucked bowstrings
and chanted prayers to keep the palace and its people safe from
Ayumi shook her head. Even the lowliest peasant knew that to avoid
the sizzling wrath of the storm gods, all you had to do was hold
a pebble in your mouth and recite the Thousand Hands sutra.
Trust the useless nobility to build a new Fuji from an anthill
base, she thought scornfully, and make something complicated
out of simplicity.
Lady Naisho lived in a small set of rooms that would have been
considered exquisitely furnished had it not been for the dozens
of birdcages and their twittering occupants that hung from
every beam and stood on every surface. Feathers, dust and droppings
soiled the tatami mats; warbled song rent the air from dawn
to dusk. Next to gossip, Naisho's greatest passion was breeding
tiny, jewel-colored birds that lived and died in their fantastically
crafted bamboo prisons.
The lady was reading a Karan scroll and nibbling sweet chestnuts
when Ayumi entered. "Ah, Kimiko-san's famous retainer!" Naisho called.
"To what do I owe the honor of this visit, honorable samurai?"
Ayumi knelt down at the other side of the low table and bowed.
"Please excuse me for disturbing you." She glanced around; the lady
was in mourning for her fourth husband, which explained why the
family shrine was draped in a white cloth banner.
"Ma! Such nice manners for a rough warrior!" Naisho popped
a syrupy chestnut into her mouth and chewed energetically. She was
a short, petite woman, still pretty despite her middle years, who
only looked fragile and delicate. In fact, she was tough as iron,
as enthusiastic as a child and sly as a monkey; nobody underestimated
She cocked her head to one side and peered at Ayumi with wickedly
gleaming eyes. "You disturb me all right, samurai, but not in a
way that my former husbands would have approved."
Ayumi shifted uncomfortably. Was Naisho flirting with her? "Gomen
nasai," she murmured, unsure of what to say or how to proceed.
Naisho solved her dilemma by laughing, revealing black dyed teeth.
"I forgive your disturbances, Ayumi-san. All of them." She thoughtfully
chose another chestnut and nibbled the edges. "Mou! Enough
pleasantries; I can see that your shoulders are not quite broad
enough to endure the weight of compliments."
Ayumi shrugged. "Forgive me, my lady. I am unused to courtly ways."
"So! We go directly to business. It will be a refreshing change
from the usual ritual of mindless banter." Naisho finished the sweetmeat
and delicately wiped her fingertips on the edge of a towel. "What
information do you wish, O Blunt One?"
This was more like it. Ayumi sat up straighter and asked, "Has
anything unusual happened within the Suwa clan, or with Suwa Denbe
"You mean besides his children disappearing like blown candle flames?"
Ayumi nodded but before Naisho could continue, there was a scratching
at the paper screened door that led to the verandah.
"Please excuse me," the lady said, getting up from her knees and
walking towards the door. She paused. "Would you care to see the
source of my information, honorable samurai? Many believe that I
pay for servant's gossip. Aiii! If so, I would be penniless
while the lowest bucket emptier in the palace would feast at my
expense! No, I prefer another way. Come."
"Why would you expose your secrets to me?" the samurai asked, rising
and following Naisho out into the garden. "We know one another only
through our connection to my lady."
"I trust you, O Blunt One, and I like Kimiko-san. At my age, I
have learned to tell the difference between true honor and pretense.
I don't particularly care if my source is revealed, either. I've
never kept my friends a secret; it's just that most people who visit
me are either in too much of a hurry to bargain for information
or nervous about what I know regarding them, and therefore have
little time for amusements." Naisho gave her a saucy grin. "Please
allow an old lady to indulge in a small display of pride."
Ayumi nodded politely. "So what have we come here to see?"
Naisho gestured. The samurai turned around and gazed back at the
verandah... then took a step backwards in surprise, hand straying
to the hilt of her sword.
A hideous creature hung from the roof beams; it resembled a feathered,
clawed lizard with an oddly human face and a long, whip-thin tail.
As she watched, the foot-long monster scuttled down and came towards
them. Ayumi's hand tightened its grip on her katana but it
gave the women a wide berth and leaped into an abandoned well at
the back of the garden.
Naisho smiled. "A shokera," she explained. "Souls from the
Hell of Lusty Swallowers, reborn in this form to pay a karmic debt.
They live on rooftops and delight in spying on households; a minor
nuisance that any acolyte priest can banish. There is a veritable
army of shokera living in the palace; I suppose the Dowager
has better things to protect the Son of Heaven from gossipy spirits."
Ayumi cleared her throat, eyeing the well warily. "You are allied
with monsters from the Buddhist hell?"
"Not exactly." Naisho retrieved a basket of hen's eggs from the
steps of the verandah. "I do pay for information but the wage is
cheaper than coin."
The lady walked to the well and dropped two eggs inside. There
was a hollow crunching sound, then a thin, reedy voice, like the
piping of a shakuhachi flute, began to float up from the
Ayumi listened in astonishment. Lord Yorihisa was doing what
with the prostitute Dog Nose at the Chrysanthemum Seat brothel?
Was that physically possible? She shook her head to dislodge the
disturbing mental picture.
Lady Naisho stayed bent over the well mouth until the recitation
stopped. She bowed briefly and rejoined Ayumi. "So you see, Blunt
One, my spies are not human and thus, far more reliable."
The samurai considered. "Would these shokera be prevented
from spying on a Shinto temple?"
"I suppose so," the lady answered tentatively. "Holy ground is
holy ground, Buddha's footsteps or not. Oh! This may be of interest
"I was reminded of it because of the Shinto temple. I've just recalled
something unusual that took place just before Lord Denbe's misfortunes
began. It was a retirement ceremony."
"I didn't know the lord had retired a sword!"
"No, nothing so serious as that. It was a toy."
Ayumi crinkled her brows. "A toy? Why would he retire a toy to
a Shinto temple?"
"Not just any child's plaything, mind you. It was an inu-hariko,
a paper-mache dog. More than a hundred years old, which is why it
was retired to a temple."
"Please excuse me, but why a Shinto temple? Don't Buddhists usually
take care of things like the hundred-year's curse?"
Lady Naisho shrugged. It was believed that anything - trees, tools,
household articles - which reached a century in age then gained
a soul, which could be good or evil. Retiring the object in question
to a temple was a precautionary measure; soothing the new soul with
incense and prayers kept the owners safe from vengeful articles
and bad karma.
"You are right," Naisho said. "I do not know why he chose Shinto
unless... well, the dog was painted white. I suppose a toy painted
such an inauspicious color wouldn't be allowed to enter a Buddhist
Ayumi felt she held one of the keys to the puzzle. Now she asked,
"Did anything out of the ordinary happen to Lady Ryoko before their
"She hasn't attended a jealousy meeting in a while. We thought
she was too busy supervising the children. Lord Denbe has nearly
gambled away all his personal fortune; poor Ryoko hasn't a penny
to her name anymore and can't really afford more nurses."
"What is a jealousy meeting? I've never heard of such a thing!"
Naisho laughed. "A group of wives meets in my quarters every month.
We're all friends and would never reveal our shame to the world
but... well, no husband is perfect. We women are taught to conceal
our emotions, to show our lords a smiling face and a welcoming bow,
to give him nothing but the perfection of purity and light. We are
forced to endure such hardships when our lord is indifferent or
has been captivated by another! Oh, we feel jealousy in our hearts
- as terrible as that is to admit - but we can never, ever show
it. Some of us attend meetings where we can bare our souls and share
our burdens without censure. It really is a cleansing exercise."
"And Ryoko went to these meetings?"
"Of course." Naisho sat the basket of eggs down on the steps. "Poor
woman. She desperately loves Lord Denbe but it was an arranged marriage
and he has never looked upon her with favor. She would do anything
for him. Do you know, she even went down into the city to see a
'wet needle woman' in the Street of Falling Petals when he told
her that bearing children would make her too ugly to be endured?"
Ayumi struggled to keep her jaw from dropping. The midwife had
told her that the lord beat Ryoko to make her miscarry but Naisho
was suggesting that she'd had a deliberate abortion to please her
husband. "Please forgive me for asking, but how accurate is that
"I had it from the abortionist herself and it was confirmed by
a madame who runs the brothel next door, not to mention my shokera
spies. The last time, Ryoko nearly bled to death and her womb was
destroyed in punishment for the sin of infant murder. Poor, poor
woman." Naisho sighed. "All for the love of a man who hates the
very sight of her. What things we women do for the sake of love!"
"And Ryoko spoke of these things at the jealousy meetings?"
"Merciful Kwannon, no! I told you, I found this out some time later.
All old ladies have to have some hobby to keep them interested in
life; gossip is mine." Naisho shook her head in mock dismay and
grabbed her breasts. "Withered as I am, my amusements are of a less
fleshly nature than one could wish."
Ayumi's lips quirked in a half smile. "You are no more withered
than I am," she replied gallantly. Naisho's flirting was more subtle
and charming than most; even she was not immune to the spell. "I
suspect half the court is madly in love with you; the other half
would be if they could pry their minds away from peach bottom boys
and cross-eyed actors."
Naisho beamed. "Good girl. Compliments will get you everywhere!"
"Perhaps. However, my lady, you were telling me about Ryoko...?"
"Ah, yes. Please forgive my lapse." Naisho turned serious again.
"Ryoko spoke of her hatred for Denbe-san's second wives, his courtesan
and the children he'd had by them. She was so happy when the other
wives died by accident, although taking care of their brats did
not bring her joy."
"You know the lady is ill...?"
"Oh, yes! I know about the exorcism. Strange, isn't it? Ryoko always
enjoyed excellent health until the lord brought a second wife into
the household. Then she began to have strange fevers and sicknesses
which the doctors could not cure."
A terrible suspicion was blossoming in Ayumi's brain. "Let me see
if I understand you correctly. You say that the honorable lady was
ill when Lord Denbe married again. After his second wife's death,
did she become well again?"
"Now that you mention it... yes. Both times. An odd pattern, I
"Thank you very much for your time, my lady." Ayumi bowed deeply.
"You have been most helpful."
Naisho smiled. "Should you require assistance again, O Blunt One,
you know where I live."
Ayumi bowed again. "When the peach is ripest, has it not then the
sweetest flesh?," she quoted. "Should I happen upon anything of
interest, my lady, I will inform you at once."
Lady Naisho pressed fingertips to her breastbone and sighed as
If only her husbands had shown half the spirit of this female samurai!
Steamy speculating on Ayumi's possible pillowing expertise and
the techniques she might use took up the rest of Naisho's exciting
Kimiko stared at the letter in astonishment.
"Saneyoshi-sama has gone mad!" she exclaimed.
Izumi hurried over. "What is it, my lady? Bad news?"
"The worst news! I am to be married tonight!"
Izumi gasped. "But the wedding kimonos have only just been ordered!
The seamstresses will never finish in time! And the food for the
feast is not prepared! The cooks will be in despair!"
"I am not concerned with the injured feelings of cooks!" Kimiko
wailed. "I cannot believe my uncle would do this to me!"
"Please, my lady. Do not despair so. You will do yourself an injury."
Izumi wrung her hands and wondered how she could hide all the sharp
objects in the room without her mistress noticing.
Kimiko tore the offending letter into shreds and let the pieces
scatter on the floor. "I hate him! I hate him! Oh, why can't they
all just leave me alone!"
Izumi hastily fetched a bottle of sake. "Here, my lady.
Drink some of this. It will make you feel better."
Kimiko grabbed the clay bottle and drank its fiery contents in
a few gulps, blinking tears from her eyes as the liquor burned its
way down to her stomach. "I know I must do my duty to clan and family.
I am a woman and the world is ruled by men. Giri is giri.
Shigata ga nai. I know this and yet... oh! How I wish I did
not have to accept the inevitable. Just once I would like to act
as a man and not have to endure as a woman!"
"Please, my lady. Do not speak so." Izumi tried to take the empty
vessel but Kimiko waved it dangerously near her head.
"I will speak as I wish!" Kimiko shouted, all decorum gone in a
haze of sake fumes. "Fetch me a sharp knife."
"Oh, my lady!" Izumi began to cry. "Seppuku is not the answer!"
"Hah!" Completely unused to hard liquor, the girl was tottering
on her feet. "I don't want to cut my throat. But when that miserable
worm Denbe tries to crawl into my bed, I'll skewer his jade pole
like a grilled eel!"
"Aiii! She has gone mad! Oh, merciful Buddha, take my life in exchange
for my lady's restored sanity!"
Kimiko threw the bottle across the room, where it plunged through
the paper paned wall and shattered against a wooden chest. "I am
not mad. I am angry!"
Just then, Ayumi walked into the room, taking in the scene with
rolling eyes. "What is going on here?" she asked.
Izumi cried, "Our mistress is insane! You should not have interfered,
samurai! I blame you for all this!"
Kimiko hiccuped. "My honorable and esteemed uncle-san has decided
I am to marry Denbe tonight at the first Hour of the Boar."
"I see." Ayumi sniffed ostentatiously. "What motherless idiot has
made you drunk, my lady?"
Izumi turned crimson. "It was only one bottle!" she said.
Ayumi sighed. "It was enough. Have a servant fetch some buckets
of cold water, Izumi. I will speak to our lady until they arrive."
The plump woman was loathe to leave. "The lady may try and do some
damage to herself," she warned. "This is all your fault!"
The samurai regarded the indignantly quivering maid. "All fault
lies in Heaven and the path of our life is determined by unmei,"
she said calmly. "Weep a river or rival the thunderbolts in your
accusations to the gods, but it will not change a thing. What is
written to be, will be; even Buddha must bow to fate. Now go fetch
that water and quickly. Our mistress needs to prepare for her wedding."
Izumi's face burned hotly but she turned and fled the room.
Now Ayumi looked at Kimiko. "I know you are angry," she said, "but
I thought you had accepted your duty."
"I thought I did, too." Now that the first flush of sake
courage had left her system, Kimiko drooped. "I want to fight but
I cannot." The flesh around her eyes appeared bruised and she gazed
at the samurai with an expression of hopelessness. "I am trapped
and cannot escape... can I?"
Ayumi sensed where this was going and said carefully, "You have
been protected all your life, my lady. First by your family, then
by your position and wealth. Even if you ran away, where would you
go? How would you live? Where would you sleep? You are a noblewoman
and cannot live in the world alone."
"I could live with you." Even as she said it, Kimiko knew what
Ayumi's answer would be.
"Yes. A poor ronin, unprotected by the law, preyed upon
by samurai and peasant alike. A stone would be my pillow, and my
purse a haven for worms. Would you leave everything and everyone
you know behind to live the life of a bandit's whore? If I died,
rape would be the least you could expect."
Kimiko nodded miserably. "I had such dreams..."
"Those were the dreams of a child. Now you must be a woman." Ayumi
put her hands on Kimiko's shoulders. "Accept your unmei and
remember - don't count the skins of badgers that haven't been caught.
This isn't over yet and anything could happen."
"It would take a miracle to save me."
Ayumi smiled, startling the girl. "Sometimes the gods substitute
miracles for chamberpots."
Kimiko sniffled. "Am I a fool for harboring a shred of hope in
"No." Ayumi bent her head and kissed the girl's lips gently. "You
She turned to go and Kimiko said desperately, "Will you not stay
with me? I could order Izumi to make the bed... we have all afternoon..."
"Please forgive me, my lady." Ayumi knew what the girl was asking
but chose to deliberately misunderstand. "I rarely take naps in
the daytime and I fear I have a pressing appointment. Wipe your
eyes and repair your makeup, Kimiko-sama. I will return. You have
my oath on it."
Kimiko was too dejected to press the issue and had absolutely no
curiosity about the samurai's errand. She'd wanted to pillow with
the samurai at least once before her marriage. A single hour
with her would be worth a lifetime of embraces from Denbe-san, she
thought with regret. Ah well. Shigata ga nai.
As Ayumi let herself out, Kimiko knelt down at her dressing table
and stared into the round mirror.
Duty is duty.
Somehow, that noble thought brought absolutely no comfort at all.
- New Souls' Journey
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
Shinto Shrine of the priestess Snow Fairy
4 p.m., the first Hour of the Monkey
Snow Fairy stood at the entrance of the temple. The twin albino
snakes were curled around her wrists, mad pink eyes unblinking.
When Ayumi drew closer and passed through the tori gate,
the priestess bowed.
"I was expecting you," Snow said, drawing the folds of her stark
white kimono closer to her neck. The silver forelock on her shaven
head caught the late afternoon light, each colorless hair blazing
like pale diamonds. "O-cha?"
"Iye! No, thank you," Ayumi replied. "I have drunk enough
tea today. What I would prefer, however, are answers."
Snow's pink eyes went wide in pretended astonishment. "You still
have questions, honorable warrior? And the palace remains standing?
Amazing! I thought you'd have razed it to the ground by now and
put all the inhabitants to the sword in your quest to know the unknowable."
Ayumi's face was expressionless but her posture spoke eloquently
of strained patience. "Do not be coy with me, priestess. You are
involved in all this - how deeply, I don't know yet but I intend
to find out."
She took a step forward; although she and Snow were the same height,
Ayumi still managed to loom with such an air of menace that the
priestess hunched in anticipation. "There are worse things than
dying," the samurai said matter-of-factly, "and the unknowable can
be discovered... if the price is paid for knowledge. For example,
I could take you into that temple, far away from any witnesses,
and attempt to find out how long I can keep you alive while experimenting
with a bamboo saw and a dull knife."
Snow stared at the grim samurai... and felt a sudden flurry of
ice running through her veins. She did not fear evil, for those
tainted with such foulness always gave in to sadism and toyed with
their victims, bragged and bellowed in self satisfaction, giving
a slim opportunity for escape to the quick-witted. But the truly
righteous, when convinced of the rightness of their actions, were
far more merciless than any demon.
The priestess had absolutely no doubt that Ayumi would do exactly
what she threatened and never suffer a twinge of conscience.
She would cut me down without a second thought if she believed
it would serve her cause, Snow thought. In these decadent
times, is it any wonder I am surprised to find such righteousness?
Aloud, she said, "I have no wish to deceive you, Ayumi-san. Ask
your questions and I will answer truthfully." Snow stroked the snake
on her left wrist, comforted by the creature's soft, scaly warmth.
Ayumi deflated a little but stayed alert for trickery. "Very well.
But if you lie to me, I will return... and I swear that the torments
of the lowest quarter of Hell will be as nothing compared to what
I will do to you."
"I know my mistress is in danger because of her marriage to Lord
Denbe. What must I do to protect her?"
Snow Fairy nodded. "A fair assumption. But you cannot protect her
alone, samurai. The fiend responsible is not entirely human."
"I guessed as much." Ayumi rubbed her crooked nose. "What is it,
"An ikiryo... and more."
The samurai's brows rose. An ikiryo was a soul that left
the body and wandered without its owner's knowledge, causing grievous
harm by bringing plague sickness to a house. She'd suspected as
much after learning the pattern of Ryoko's 'illnesses' but runaway
souls could not cause the sort of harm she'd seen in the children's
"What else?" Ayumi asked shortly.
"I believe the lady's spirit has become a living hannya."
Snow continued to lightly stroke the snakes entwined around her
wrists. "She has corrupted herself with jealousy to such an extent
that although her body yet lives, Ryoko-sama's soul has become a
powerful ghost, something almost apart from herself, that will continue
to cause destruction until it is stopped."
"Why have you done nothing to prevent this? You are a priestess;
isn't that your appointed task?"
"As you know, the Son of Heaven is under the influence of his mother,
who is a devout Buddhist," Snow answered slowly. "Practitioners
of Shinto are not welcome at the Emperor's court; my temple here
is a gesture to tradition only. Besides, no priest - Buddhist, Shinto,
Taoist or otherwise - has any real power to defeat a hannya
in direct confrontation."
"Ah." Ayumi scratched the side of her crooked nose. "Did you not
think to inform the Abbots, then?"
Snow shrugged. "Would they have believed me?"
The samurai had to admit that the priestess was right. Although
Buddhism and Shinto existed side by side in the Floating World,
the Buddhists had a rather condescending attitude towards the Way
of the Kami, considering it a peasant religion with little
validity. No Abbot would have given credence to Snow's warning;
to do so would put his own position of ultimate knowledge in doubt.
"You have a point," Ayumi said. "So... do you think Ryoko knows
about her wandering soul?"
"I do not think so. Lady Ryoko is essentially a good person who
has secretly surrendered to the darkness in her heart and is not
consciously aware that she has done so. She would be horrified to
learn that the nightmares she suppressed for so long were responsible
for three deaths."
Ayumi was concentrating so hard she nearly missed Snow's last words.
When they finally registered, she glanced up and frowned. "Only
three deaths? Gomen nasai, but thus far, there have been
six killed and I wish to prevent a seventh. Can you not count beyond
the number of hairs on your head?"
"The hannya took three lives, not one more." Snow Fairy
gestured towards the temple. "Come and witness a miracle."
The temple was built of cedar planks that had long ago turned silver
with age; a mantle of gray-green moss dripped from the peaked thatch
roof. It was a ramshackle affair that looked as if it might tumble
to dust any moment. Snow led the way within; Ayumi noted that the
air smelled fresh and clean, as if after a spring rain, and had
none of the musty odor of old incense that permeated Buddhist structures.
The front room was virtually empty; the dirt floor was swept clean
and a circular stone hearth in the center held a crackling fire.
A curtain made of stringed bells hung in a doorway, separating this
space from the next. Snow pushed aside the jingling strands and
gestured Ayumi inside.
A woman knelt on a ragged tatami mat, nursing a baby at her breast.
When the samurai entered, she jumped up and held a hand across her
mouth, obviously terrified.
Ayumi spread her hands apart. "I am not here to harm you," she
said. Two girl children dressed in beautiful but crumpled kimonos
clung to each other and stared at her with huge eyes.
"Are you the courtesan called Small Water Dragon?" Ayumi asked
the woman, who nodded.
Snow Fairy said, "She is here to help you, Dragon. Why don't you
give me the baby before you drop him on his head."
After she had passed the baby to Snow, Dragon knelt down again,
scrubbing her hands together nervously. "Please forgive me, honorable
one," she said in a small voice. "I meant no disrespect."
"I took none." Ayumi squatted across from her, hands on her knees.
"So the priestess has sheltered you and the children all this time?"
"Yes." Dragon was a pretty but bedraggled woman with tired eyes
and coarse skin. "I don't understand what happened, though."
"What did happen, little sister?"
The courtesan looked helplessly at Snow and crumpled her forehead
in thought. "Please excuse me, I'm sorry, honorable one, but I don't
know. There was some fighting, I think. I hid my face in my sleeve
and didn't watch. I do remember flying but I didn't look then, either.
I'm not very brave."
She seemed desperately anxious to please and kept giving shy glances
out of the corner of her eye, like a child who expects to be scolded.
It was becoming clear to Ayumi that Dragon wasn't the brightest
young woman in the world. She said kindly, "I understand you were
frightened. It is all right. You are a good girl for taking care
of your baby and the little girls."
Dragon brightened. "I like babies. Honorable Snow, shall I take
the baby again and go look for bamboo shoots? I love the bamboo's
children; we can have them for dinner with our rice!"
Snow Fairy sighed and handed the now drowsy child back to its mother.
"That would be very nice."
As soon as the courtesan had scuttled from the room, bowing and
smiling, Snow turned to the waiting samurai. "Small Water Dragon
comes from a peasant family who sold her to a brothel before she
started her monthly bleeding. She has a mind like a child and knows
she isn't very intelligent. Sometimes she cries because she thinks
she's too stupid."
"Not stupid. A bit slow, perhaps, and far too innocent for this
world," Ayumi replied.
"I worry about her," Snow said, kneeling down across from the other
woman. "I'm amazed she's survived this long. She cannot look out
for herself; an unscrupulous person could harm her easily and Lord
Denbe is not the most patient man in the world."
"When this is over, take her to see Blue Carp at the Rushing Koi
bathhouse. Carp will find her a protector - an old, retired nobleman
who would enjoy spending his declining years pampering a young,
pretty woman of little intelligence but great heart."
"That is very good of you," Snow said, bowing and touching her
forehead to the mat. "Now I suppose you wish to know how they came
to be here unharmed."
"Do you know about the hundred-year's curse?"
"I do." Ayumi reached into the sleeve of her kimono and pulled
out a small lacquer box of preserved ginger, offering a slice to
the priestess. "Suwa Denbe retired a white toy dog to this temple
to avoid it. What I would like to know is how that inu-hariko
came to be in the garden and in the children's room when they were
saved from the hannya's attack... and why."
"How do you know it was there at all?"
"I found a scrap of fabric in the garden - white cloth with a snowflake
pattern. Exactly like your robe, in fact. I know that a sword retired
to a Buddhist temple is hidden with a special covering; I assume
this is also the case here."
"Yes. I used a piece of one of my old kimonos to wrap the dog in."
"I also found some bits of aloes wood, painted white on one side.
It looked as if they had been clawed away from something."
"This was in the children's room." This was not a question; Snow
was making a statement.
"Hai." Ayumi took a piece of ginger and stuck it into her
mouth; the confection was exactly the same color pink as the priestess'
eyes. "Let me make some assumptions and you will please tell me
if I am correct."
Snow nodded. "All right. Please continue."
"Dogs have supernatural powers. They recognize demons in disguise;
they are guardians and protectors of children, especially ones that
travel by night. A toy dog is used to guard sleeping children, to
make sure baku monsters don't steal their dreams, and to
protect their souls from injury by evil creatures."
"The inu-hariko in your temple has gained its own soul by
virtue of its age. If this is a good soul - and I assume that it
is - then it would feel obliged to act as a guardian to the children
it loves and who once loved it."
"Please excuse me, honorable samurai. You are perfectly correct,"
Snow said. "If you will allow me to explain...?"
Ayumi grunted in assent.
"The dog's soul gives it life but only when the children of its
clan are threatened. In the garden and nursery, the inu-hariko
fought the hannya of Ryoko and then brought its charges here,
where it knew they would be safe. This is holy ground and evil beings
cannot enter the temple. I have kept them all here under my protection,
until the situation can be resolved and they are no longer in danger."
Her pink eyes glittered with frustration. "It was all I could do
under the circumstances. Although I could not destroy the hannya
if it came here, the wards of magic around this place are not easily
"The dog didn't protect the nurse or Denbe-san's second wives because
they were grown women. But Dragon...? Ah. You told me she has the
mind of a child."
"Yes. The inu-hariko recognizes the purity of her heart
and soul. But I must tell you, Ayumi-san, your mistress is in grave
"The dog won't protect Kimiko-sama. Well, I thought as much. My
lady is mature beyond her years." Ayumi stood up, automatically
checking the looseness of her katana in its sheath. "What
can I do?"
"Any injury that is inflicted on the hannya will appear
on Lady Ryoko's living body," Snow said. "Kill the soul and you
destroy the flesh."
"That explains the dog bite on Ryoko-san's leg." Ayumi sighed.
"Tell me, is death such a bad thing? I could deprive the lady of
her head in a moment and that would end the troubles right now."
"Consider, honorable warrior. Ryoko-sama is responsible for these
terrible deeds, yes, but only in a karmic fashion. She has no control
over the hannya and does not even know it exists. Depriving
the lady of an opportunity to pay for her soul's crimes in this
world is cruel; even if she became a saint today she would still
suffer terribly in Hell. Besides, if you are executed for murdering
Denbe-sama's wife, who would protect Lady Kimiko?"
"I will not stand idly by and watch my mistress die at the hands
of a cruel spirit!"
"You will not have to." Snow got up and went to a table set against
the wall. A number of offering bowls and strangely twisted bottles
stood on the rough wooden surface. "We can do nothing to banish
the hannya without killing Ryoko-sama. Even a powerful inu-hariko
can only fight the spirit to a draw. Therefore, we must allow the
only person who has power over the hannya to destroy it."
"And who might that be? I hope you aren't going to suggest that
charlatan of an exorcist. He wouldn't recognize a wandering soul
if it possessed his honorable back passage and made him fart folk
Snow guffawed. "No. Not even the High Holy Abbot of Kamo Shrine
can destroy a hannya, as I've already told you." She sobered;
the albino snakes slid off her arms and slithered to the floor,
burrowing into a heap of straw in a corner of the room.
Her pink eyes gleamed as she regarded the samurai. "We must go
directly to the source."
"Speaking in riddles again?" Ayumi bowed mockingly. "Enlighten
this miserable worm, O Wisdom of the Ages, I beg you."
Snow picked up a bottle and shook it; the liquid inside was bright
blue and seemed to glow with an eerie light. "I have a plan. You
must allow Kimiko-sama to marry Lord Denbe. I hope this is the catalyst
that will draw the hannya out into the open."
"And then?" Although Ayumi's liver twisted at the thought of her
mistress marrying that offspring-of-a-debauched monkey, she knew
that fate could not be escaped. If it is meant to be, she
thought, it will be. Shigata ga nai. But if he harms her,
I will tie his noble intestines to a tree and invite the local peasantry
to watch him dance into the grave.
Snow Fairy explained her plan in detail. It was very dangerous
and might not work; indeed, if it didn't, then Kimiko would surely
forfeit her life.
To her vast surprise, Ayumi found herself agreeing with the priestess'
What choice do I have? The gods are hurling dungheaps and pisspots
with unerring aim, she thought. I can only do my duty and
pray that my lady be spared. Do you hear me, you indifferent bastards?
If anyone must die, let it be me. Otherwise, I'll cut my belly,
march up from Hell and rattle the teeth of Heaven until your divine
ears fall off.
As she left the temple, Ayumi spared a final glance over her shoulder;
Snow stood outside, watching her with a grave expression.
Shigata ga nai.
One way or another, it would end tonight.
- Hiding the Horns
Round a flame
Shi o arasou ya Two tiger
Race to die.
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
Hall of Golden Koi to the Roof of the Red Gods
8 p.m., the first Hour of the Dog
"Please turn your head this way, my lady,"
Izumi mumbled through a mouthful of pins.
With a sigh, Kimiko obeyed the maid's instructions.
Her floor length hair had been washed, carefully draped over a bamboo
rack with a brazier in the bottom, and dried with vigorously applied
fans. Now Izumi was putting the glossy, oiled locks up into a complex
arrangement of loops and knots - the traditional hairstyle worn
Kimiko had already donned her wedding costume.
Layer after layer of stark crimson robes, arranged to show the merest
sliver of a peach underkimono at her throat, topped with a gloriously
extravagant gold tissue mantle whose long, full sleeves touched
the ground. All of this finery had been borrowed from a noblewoman
of Kimiko's acquaintance whose daughter had just been married.
Izumi slid the last pin into place. The head
was decorated with a mother-of-pearl winged butterfly, cunningly
crafted to quiver in a lifelike manner with every movement. She
picked up a length of white muslin. "Please hold still, my lady."
The muslin was wrapped around Kimiko's forehead
and the top edges teased up to partially obscure the front and sides
of the girl's hair. This was meant to hide the "horns of jealousy"
that all women possessed and indicate that the bride was willing
to do her marital duty without complaint.
Kimiko knelt with a perfectly straight back,
hands folded together in her lap, face expressionless. It felt as
if all the blood had drained from her veins, her heart replaced
by a block of ice. She was freezing. There was an iron brazier nearby
but mere heat could not penetrate the burning cold that wrapped
around her bones.
Perhaps I am possessed by Yuki Onna, the
Woman of the Snows, she thought. Perhaps I will die before
I must endure Denbe's touch. Or perhaps I will kill him myself.
She surreptitiously touched the knife concealed
in her sleeve. The sharp, solid shape was comforting.
Izumi painted her mistress' face stark white,
adding touches of scarlet rouge to lips and cheeks. False eyebrows
were smudged in, although lower than usual due to the "horn hider"
around Kimiko's forehead. Finally, the maid sat back on her heels
and smiled. "You are beautiful, my lady. There won't be a woman
at the wedding who doesn't gnash her teeth in envy."
Kimiko did not reply.
"Would you care for some o-cha?"
There was no response. Kimiko stared into
the mirror on her low dressing table, eyes hooded.
Izumi was feeling a little desperate. "Did
not your lady mother ever tell you that girls who are too vain will
end up devoured by the mirror monster?" she teased.
Kimiko's gaze slid downward to focus on her
Izumi sighed. "Where is that useless samurai
of yours, eh? Is it not her duty to escort you to the Roof of Red
This got the girl's attention. She said tonelessly,
"Ayumi said she would be here in time."
"Well, I certainly hope so!" Izumi shook
her head. "It would be a disgrace if you were late to your own wedding."
After a silent pause, the plump maid said
softly, "You know, my lady... you have been in my care since you
were a small child. I have always tried to do my best for you."
"I know." These words were said so softly
that Izumi almost didn't hear them.
"This marriage... it is unpleasant but you
must not be afraid," Izumi continued earnestly. "It is woman's lot
to suffer a husband and obey his wishes. If you're diligent in your
marital duties and give him an heir, the lord will no doubt cease
to trouble your chambers. You will have the freedom to act as you
please, provided you are discreet."
Kimiko turned her head and stared at the
maid, who blushed. "You mean, once my husband becomes bored and
leaves me for other women, I can entertain the lovers of my choice?"
Izumi blushed brighter. "Of course," she
mumbled. "That is the way of the world. Your lady mother would tell
you thus if she had not taken nun's vows."
"My mother was never unfaithful to Father!"
"I did not mean to suggest she was!" Izumi
said frantically, trying to avoid Kimiko's accusing gaze. "But since
she is not here to advise you, the duty falls to me. Please, my
lady... forgive my offense."
At that moment, Ayumi entered the room. "The
Kanpuko has sent four of his Dogs to accompany you to the
Roof," she said to Kimiko. "No doubt they intend to carry you bodily
if you prove unwilling... if they can."
The lady rose gracefully, twitching the sides
of her robes to adjust their fall. "Shall we go?"
Izumi got up as well. Hustling over to a
table, she picked up a paper wrapped package and offered it to Kimiko
with both hands. "For the pledging liquid," she said.
Kimiko took the packet of tissues and tucked
it into a sleeve. After she had joined with Denbe in the Clouds
and Rain, these papers would be used to mop up the evidence of their
union. The success of a pillowing was gauged by how many tissues
were needed afterwards.
"Shall we go?" she repeated to Ayumi.
"Hai!" The samurai bowed. Coming closer,
she added quietly, "Do not fear, my lady. If it is the will of the
gods, all will be well."
Kimiko looked directly at the woman she'd
once hoped would be her lover - first and only. "I believe as much
in the kindliness of the gods as you do." Despite her effort at
control, the girl's tone was extremely bitter.
Ayumi felt her liver flop over at the look
of sadness in her mistress' eyes. All of a sudden, she felt a powerful
urge to snatch Kimiko over her shoulder, draw sword and sprint away
from the palace, cutting down anyone who tried to stop them. Common
I have no right to ruin my lady's life
with insane fantasies, the samurai thought. I have always
put duty before all else. Why should now be any different?
A still, small voice within her mind whispered:
Because you love her...
Ayumi was momentarily stunned. Love? This
cannot be! she argued frantically with herself. I am a common
samurai, a warrior of no prospects other than an early death. Her
station is as high above mine as Heaven's to a crawling worm. And
besides, she is too young!
"Are you all right?"
Ayumi started in surprise then realized that
Kimiko had addressed her. "I... I am fine, my lady," she lied.
Kimiko sighed. For a moment, she thought
she'd seen something odd in the samurai's face, an emotion she'd
never observed before. Her liver had fluttered, recognizing the
expression even though her mind had not. "Then let us not keep my
husband waiting," she said, crushing that shred of hope before it
could thaw the protective ice around her soul.
Ayumi nodded. "I will not leave your side
for a moment."
Kimiko led the way out of her rooms, crimson
robes sweeping the ground behind, with Ayumi on her heels.
Izumi glanced from one woman to the other
as they left. With a deep, heartfelt sigh, the maid began the chore
of packing her mistress' things. It was unlikely this apartment
would remain theirs after the wedding.
Oh, my sweet mistress, Izumi thought.
May the gods smile upon you now as never before.
I have a feeling you will need all the
divine aid you can get.
Ryoko stirred on her cot. "My husband,"
she said gently, "please forgive me but I do not think it wise to
earn the Kanpuko's wrath by being late to your wedding."
Denbe sneered, flicking more powder over his cheeks. "Kimiko-san
is a lovely piece of meat." His eyes narrowed meanly as he gazed
at his first wife. "Much more attractive than you. Pillowing with
her will be much more pleasurable than embracing your sharp bones."
Ryoko dropped her eyes so Denbe wouldn't see how much his remark
had hurt her. Amazing, after all these years, that his disregard
can still wound me, she thought wearily. "Gomen nasai,"
she murmured. "I meant no offense."
"Why are you still laying about, lazy woman?" Denbe smiled at his
reflection in the dressing table mirror and applied more black dye
to his teeth with a swab of cotton. "Get dressed!"
"Gomen nasai, my lord." Ryoko was stunned. "I did not think
I would be required to attend..."
"Of course! You are my first wife and related to that hag, the
Empress. You must show your ugly face at the wedding and reassure
your honorable auntie that I've been taking good care of you..."
He added meanly, "...unlike the 'care' you lavished on my lost children."
Ryoko could feel tears welling up and she repressed them automatically.
One obeyed one's husband in perfection, always smiling at adversity,
always calm, never demanding. "Hai, my lord. I will prepare
She struggled up from the cot, ignored by Denbe, and a maid hurried
over to support Ryoko as she moved slowly to the wardrobe. The lady
was still feeling very weak, almost drained, and her knees trembled
I love him so! Ryoko thought. If only he would love me,
just a little, in return. She sighed as the maid undressed her.
The jealousy meetings had been a gift from Heaven; just because
she had to keep her feelings under control didn't mean she wasn't
tormented by her husband's dalliances and indifference. Being able
to talk about it with sympathetic listeners made enduring the hardship
easier. But she'd been forced to stop attending when the new baby
had been born... and thinking about that made a sudden burst
of rage blossom in Ryoko's brain.
That baby should have been mine! she seethed inwardly, unconsciously
rubbing her abdomen. Buddha forgive me, but I murdered my unborn
children to please him. How does he reward me? By taking
whores to his bed! Oh, he might have married two of them, but those
beautiful women with their smooth skin and wet, red mouths were
nothing but whores.
Ryoko was rapidly becoming furious.
His children - his! As if the babies I carried in my
womb did not matter! His second wives - his! - as if I were
dirt to be trampled upon, my honor and pride turned to dust. His
needs, his wants! Ryoko's eyes glittered. And now he thinks
to take another seductress to his bed...
She stood straighter and allowed the maid to draw colorful silk
kimonos over her shoulders. All weakness was gone, all trembling
ceased as her anger settled into a slow burn. I love him so much!
If only he weren't so weak, if only he would put aside these foolish
dreams and embrace me as he should! If only that young slut Kimiko
would leave him alone and stop panting after my husband!
Ryoko would never, ever admit her true feelings to Denbe. She was
too well trained to make such a confession but her heart was scarred
by years of rejection; poisonous jealousy had crept in, bit by bit,
each little emotional wound etched in acid and never forgotten.
Now Ryoko had found a new object to focus her hatred on.
Fujiwara no Kimiko!
The maid glanced at her mistress and shuddered.
For one shivery second, she thought she'd seen a glint of eerie
bright blue flame in Lady Ryoko's eyes
- Vows and Honor
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
Roof of the Red Gods
9 p.m., the second Hour of the Dog
The Roof of the Red Gods was so named for two reasons. First, it
was located at the top of the highest stone tower and afforded an
unrivaled view of the surrounding palace buildings and gardens.
Second, a pair of enormous, scarlet-skinned statues of tusked and
multi-armed gods from mainland Kara acted as guardians of this traditional
wedding site. They stared down at the assembled courtier with bulging
eyes, faces twisted into fierce scowls that had frightened generations
of children into temporary obedience.
The evening was crisp and cold; torches blazed in stands around
the low retaining wall, providing some light but little heat. Waiting
nobles knelt on cushions and huddled together for warmth, the beautiful
layers of their kimonos providing no protection against the elements.
The High Holy Abbot of Kamo Shrine, dressed in saffron and wearing
the tall, pointed hat of his office, stood with his back to the
wind. Clouds of incense billowed around him like a misty tide.
On a special dais to one side, Saneyoshi-sama and the Dowager knelt
together in a semblance of harmony. Their houses were being joined
in what was supposed to be a happy occasion; if either entertained
new doubts about the match, it was far too late to back away now.
Surrounding the dais were their personal guards; the Regent's Dogs
and Lady Hisame's retainers growled at one another and jockeyed
for position with ill grace.
Lord Denbe was seated on a cushion in front of the Abbot. Although
he appeared to be relaxed, in fact the man was visibly vibrating
with tension. Lady Ryoko knelt to his left, her expression miserable
enough to cause whispered comments. Denbe turned to his first wife
and hissed furiously, "Baka! You can do nothing about your
ugliness but you can - at least! - look glad that I am happy!"
Ryoko pasted a sickly smile on her face and stared straight ahead.
A faint tremor in her hand was the only indication of her nervousness...
or was it another emotion that made the lady seem so ill, so pale
Kimiko arrived on the roof, walking slowly between the giant gods,
a vision in red and gold. Ayumi stomped immediately behind her,
the samurai's jaw thrust out belligerently, black eyes glaring defiantly
left and right, as if daring anyone to protest her presence. Her
hand was wrapped so tightly around the bound hilt of her katana
that it creaked under the strain. The guards sent by the Regent
scuttled onto the roof and immediately joined their fellows at the
dais, obviously relieved that they didn't have to deal with the
extremely dangerous woman anymore.
A hooded figure slipped into the shadows at the back, unnoticed
by any save the silent stone gods.
When Kimiko knelt down gracefully at Denbe's right hand, Ayumi
moved to the left and positioned herself - still standing with bow-legged
stubbornness - a sword's length away from Ryoko. Dressed in formal
armor, as if going to battle instead of attending her mistress'
wedding, the samurai's appearance was so formidable that none -
not even the Kanpuko - dared to complain.
The Abbot cleared his throat and the whispers died away. Although
weddings were traditionally presided over by a Shinto priest, that
faith was out of favor at court, so he had been pressed into service
by the Dowager. Holding his long sleeve between two fingers, he
used his free hand to draw a dipperful of water from a nearby brass
dish. Scattering the droplets over Denbe and Kimiko, he intoned
a purification blessing, while behind him shaven-headed acolytes
continued to toss handfuls of powdered incense into braziers.
Kimiko did not feel the cold. She was freezing from within. The
girl surreptitiously moved her arm a little, to drop the hilt of
the concealed knife into her palm. Kimiko did not intend to remain
a bride for long; if the gods did not take pity on her, she would
swiftly become a widow... and then use the blade on herself, to
take another turn on the Wheel and see if the next life would be
Forgive me, Ayumi, she thought. Where I go, you cannot
follow. Shigata ga nai... but perhaps we will be fated to
Desperation had forced her to this decision. Kimiko would not -
could not! - allow Denbe to quiet his lust upon her body. Forced
into a marriage that she did not want because of duty and honor,
she had no choice but to allow the ceremony to take place. Afterwards,
the strictures of giri satisfied, Kimiko would murder her
husband and commit seppuku. It was her only means of protesting
the decision of the Regent and she intended to die with the dignity
of a Fujiwara.
The Abbot droned on and on, the words of his message as senseless
and without meaning to Kimiko as the buzzing of an insect. Her attention
was focused solely on the comforting hilt of the knife in her hand,
her thoughts far away, occupied with the silent solace of death.
Ayumi stood as rigid and immovable as a mountain. The lacquered
bamboo armor with its inner plates of steel was heavy and uncomfortable
but it was also familiar. Her gauntleted hand stayed on the hilt
of her katana and she stared straight ahead. There were several
possible outcomes of tonight's business and it was unlikely there
would be a happy ending. The stench of tragedy was in the air, and
the samurai could only hope that if it came to the worst, she would
be allowed the privilege of giving her own life in exchange for
The Abbot reached down and bound a red ribbon around Denbe's wrist,
tying it to Kimiko's to symbolize their union. An acolyte brought
a tray containing two small bowls of sake; bride and groom
each took a shallow dish with their bound hands, careful to make
their movements in harmony, and sipped three times before laying
the empty containers back on the tray. Kimiko and Denbe were now
Suddenly, Lady Ryoko collapsed, falling forward and hitting her
head on the stone floor with a loud thud. Someone screamed, Kimiko
turned her head... and saw brilliantly flaming oni-bi pop
into existence, the fireballs hovering a moment before beginning
their dangerous dance.
The Abbot snatched up a staff and began shaking it, the three metal
rings on top jingling to frighten away evil spirits, and loudly
chanted an exorcism. The oni-bi were unfazed by Buddhist
prayers; they continued to swoop through the air, shedding small
flames. A black, oily cloud appeared and seemed to engulf the Abbot...
who choked, staggered backwards and fell, unconscious before he
hit the flagstones. The staff fell from his open fingers and rolled
The cloud roiled a moment longer, billows of darkness shifting
and bubbling, before resolving itself into a hideous figure. A caricature
of a woman, painfully thin, with shallow patterns of scales set
along her knobby cheeks and bleeding down to flush greenly on her
throat and sagging breasts. Thick fangs jutted up from her lower
jaw and small horns curled up from a mop of disheveled black hair.
Her eyes blazed with an insane, brilliant blue flame. A finger bearing
a long, sharp talon pointed straight at Kimiko. "You die!" the hannya
shrieked. "You die! Bitch, whore, slut! Die!"
Courtiers leaped up and scurried backwards, into the dubious protection
of the gigantic gods that adorned the rooftop. The Regent's and
Dowager's bodyguards swarmed around the dais, shouting in confusion.
The hannya did not notice. Beside Kimiko, Denbe sucked in
a terrified breath and began yanking madly on the ribbon that bound
him to his new bride. This only made the knot tighter and he panicked,
eyes bulging nearly from their sockets as he scrambled to his feet
and tried to run.
Kimiko cried out at the pain, tried to resist Denbe's mad flight
and nearly got her wrist dislocated. She was pulled along a few
feet before a sword flashed down and sheared away the ribbon, missing
the flesh of her arm by a hair. Ayumi roughly hauled Kimiko up,
shoved the girl behind her, and faced the hannya with drawn
katana. Denbe cowered near the retaining wall, whimpering
in fright. "Give this up," Ayumi said harshly, "or I will slay your
flesh and destroy you."
Kimiko shook the knife free of her sleeve with a snarl. "What is
this?" she demanded, no longer frozen but feeling a bonfire raging
beneath her skin. "What is going on?"
The hannya shrieked again and took a hopping step forward.
"The slut will die! I will tear out her eyes! I will feast on her
heart! She tried to destroy me, take what was mine! MINE! MINE!"
Another voice spoke, this one cool and composed: "You cannot force
love where it refuses to grow. He was never yours, my lady."
It was the Shinto priestess, Snow Fairy. She'd hidden herself in
the shadows and now came forward to kneel beside Ryoko's limp body.
She took a glass vial out of her sleeve; the bright blue liquid
inside seemed to glow with its own light. The hannya apparently
recognized this as a new threat and turned to face Snow. "No! I
seek justice!" the spirit whined angrily. "I seek to protect only
what is mine by right!" It whipped around to glare at Kimiko and
Ayumi. "She will die and I will kill you as well, samurai!"
Calmly, Snow uncorked the vial and tossed the contents into Ryoko's
face. The woman's eyelids fluttered, she moaned, and slowly sat
up, with the priestess' help. Snow Fairy's potion worked to awaken
the sleeping flesh, allowed the body to be conscious when the soul
was absent. "What... what has happened?" Ryoko whispered. "I feel
so empty... so cold..."
The hannya howled, hooking its clawed fingers, and took
another leap at Kimiko, but Ayumi interposed her sword and it stopped
just short of being gutted by the samurai's blade.
Snow pointed to the spirit. "Do you recognize this creature?" she
asked Ryoko urgently. "Look deep into yourself, my lady, and tell
me the truth. I think you know exactly what it is."
Ryoko moaned, as if in pain. "Let me sleep! I'm so tired..."
"No!" Snow lightly slapped the woman's face. "Look at it, my lady!
Slowly, reluctantly, Ryoko turned her eyes towards the creature...
and let out a muffled scream. "No! No, it cannot be!" She covered
her face with her hands and shuddered.
The hannya hissed, flicking her forked tongue across scaly
lips. "That one is too weak to do what must be done," she said in
disgust. "You cannot stop me, priest. I will have my due!"
Snow pried Ryoko's fingers away from her eyes, forced her to confront
the thing that had once been her soul. "Your jealousy has found
its own life, my lady. Death has followed the path you have created."
"No..." Ryoko whimpered in denial. Tears began sliding down her
"Yes." Snow's reply was flat but not without pity. "Only you can
end this, my lady. You can atone for the sins that have been committed
in your cause but you must act. I think you have always known but
were afraid to admit the evil that festered in your heart for so
long. The time has come and you must end this now!"
"I didn't know...," she choked and then screamed, "Buddha forgive
me! I didn't know! Oh, what have I done? What have I done?!!"
The priestess helped the weak woman to her feet and gave her a
gentle push in the hannya's direction. The spirit was circling
Kimiko and Ayumi, probing for an opening in their defenses.
Ryoko caught sight of her cowering husband and stopped crying.
Her back straightened and her face took on such an expression of
scorn that Denbe flinched. "I never asked for faithfulness. I never
asked to be adored, pampered, doted upon. I asked only the smallest
bit of affection, to be allowed the smallest portion of dignity.
But you could not even give me that, my lord. My face might
be ugly and displeasing, but your soul is a withered, hateful thing
that holds not one shred of decency or goodness."
The hannya was still circling, ignoring Ryoko... Ayumi glanced
from the creature to Snow, who stood waiting patiently with folded
hands. Behind her, Kimiko held her knife in a fierce grip and spat
in the direction of the Regent's dais, "You've saddled me with a
craven, uncle-san, but not for long!"
But the samurai held her back with one hand, still keeping her
katana pointed at the hannya.
Ryoko was walking slowly, step by step, towards Denbe. Her eyes
glittered with unshed tears. "I loved you," she said. "I gave you
my heart and you trampled it in the dust. I have done everything
you've ever asked - even murdered my unborn children in the womb
because of you - and not one word, one gesture, have you ever made
towards me that wasn't full of hate. You've spat on me, my lord.
And this..." she swept a hand in a gesture towards the snarling
hannya, "is the unhappy result."
Denbe was curled in a fetal position, back pressed against the
low stone wall. As Ryoko drew closer and closer, he put his arms
over his head and cried, "Mercy, wife! Have pity on me!"
Ryoko merely glanced at him in contempt. Whatever love she'd once
possessed for her husband was gone, reduced to ashes and dust. "As
much mercy as you showed me?" Her lip curled. "I'd say you are deserving
of none, my lord. Iye! My lord no longer. I will claim no
coward. It seems I am truly the strongest of us both, for I will
pay for my crimes while you live and wallow in yours."
She stepped up onto the top of the wall and spread her arms wide.
The hannya, too intent on harassing Kimiko and Ayumi, ignored
the perilous position of its flesh.
Ryoko lifted her eyes and turned in the direction of the dais.
Both the Regent and the Dowager stared at her. "Please forgive me,"
the lady said, wind whipping her long, black hair across her face.
"Gomen nasai. Through my fault, evil has been unleashed and
the deaths of innocents has come to pass."
Snow interrupted. "The children are safe, my lady, and the courtesan
Ryoko shuddered. "Merciful Kwan Yin, thank you! And thank you as
well, priestess." Once more she faced the silent dais. "I married
a weakling but my own jealous nature is at fault. For my crimes,
for the murders of my husband's second wives and the injury caused
his children and courtesan, I pay with my life, and ask that you
pray to Buddha for the salvation of my tainted soul."
She leaned backwards, started to fall... but the hannya,
finally realizing what was about to happen, took a long, hopping
leap away from its intended prey and caught Ryoko's ankles in its
clawed hands. The lady dangled upside down, screaming and struggling
against that bony, unbreakable grip.
Ayumi started towards the wall but Kimiko was faster. She reached
the hannya and drove her knife into its back to the hilt,
gritting through her teeth to the samurai, "Stay back! This is a
The hannya screeched, echoed by Ryoko. Ayumi called, "What
you do to the soul, the flesh suffers!"
Kimiko nodded in understanding. Ryoko had chosen an honorable death,
seppuku in payment of her crimes - as was her right. Kimiko's
giri demanded that she aid the lady in her path, one noblewoman
to another. It was a duty she did not relish but was determined
to fulfill properly. Full of pent up emotion but in control, she
grabbed the hannya by the back of her hair, forcing the head
backwards. The creature dared not let go of Ryoko; it hissed in
frustration and then in surprise as the girl coolly drew the razored
edge of her knife across its throat.
A spurt of steamy liquid gushed from the wound and the hannya
whistled in agony. Ryoko gave a bubbling moan as her own throat
was severed by sympathetic magic and a hot flood of blood sheeted
down, drizzling from her hair, staining her robes.
Oni-bi vanished with a subdued pop.
The hannya strained a moment but the wound was mortal. Inexorably,
she began to be dragged over the edge of the wall by Ryoko's dead
weight. Denbe quickly rose from his crouch and screamed, "Die, bitch!
Die! I've hated you all my life! You can't even kill yourself properly,
you stupid cow!" He gave the creature a shove that sent it toppling
over the wall... and he lost his balance, slipped in the pool of
dark liquid on the flagstones, and fell headlong onto Kimiko.
The first inkling the girl had that something was wrong came when
she felt a warm, sticky wetness all along her front. Denbe was lying
on top of her, limp and heavy. Ayumi rolled the man off her and
grunted. The hilt of Kimiko's knife was just visible, sticking out
of his chest. "He must have fallen on it," the samurai offered.
The man was clearly dead.
Kimiko sat up, gasping for breath. "I... I couldn't let her die
by inches, Ayumi-san. I had to help. Ryoko would have been my elder
sister. It was proper and... I felt so sorry for her." She'd heard
stories from other court ladies about their hellish married lives
and Ryoko's confession had wrung her heart. But for the mercy of
the gods, that sorry tale could have been her own. "At least she
didn't suffer much."
Ayumi let out a sigh. "I'd say her life was suffering enough. At
least she found peace in the end." Glancing over the wall, she saw
Ryoko's broken body lying on the ground and a knot of spectators
with torches huddled around the corpse.
Snow Fairy walked up to the two women. "Karma," she said simply
after eyeing Denbe. "His karma finally caught up with him." The
mellow torchlight lent a touch of color to her skin, darkened her
pink eyes to black.
A voice cried out, "You are all under arrest!" It was the Regent;
he had left the dais and was striding towards them, flanked by his
guards. The Dowager still knelt on her cushion, but her face was
cold, expressionless. It was clear that she would not interfere.
Kimiko started laughing. Her nerves were raw and she was on the
verge of hysteria. "You must be joking, uncle-san! What reason do
you have for arresting us?"
Saneyoshi-sama's nostrils flared in fury and he snapped, "Your
retainer has drawn a sword in the imperial palace; that merits a
death sentence. As for you, niece... I accuse you of the deliberate,
pre-meditated murder of your lawful husband, Suwa Denbe, and his
first wife! The priestess was in collusion with you, of course.
Guards! Arrest them!"
Ayumi spun around, ready to slash her way through the Regent's
Dogs, but Snow put a hand on her arm. Making a mystic gesture with
her free hand and muttering a few indistinguishable words, she tapped
into the kami magic and side-stepped herself and the samurai
away from roof to a place of safety, using a spell known only to
Shinto priests. To the onlookers, it was as if Ayumi and Snow Fairy
simply vanished into thin air, leaving not a trace behind.
Kimiko rubbed her eyes. Gone! They were both gone, leaving her
to face the Regent alone. An aching bitterness swelled within her
breast; she would never have expected this betrayal, this cruel
abandonment. Her belly twisted in pain, making her feel as if she'd
swallowed broken glass.
I loved her so much! Kimiko thought. I would have
given her anything! How could she do this to me? I was a fool to
trust her. A stupid, childish fool! The girl's anger grew until
it threatened to strangle her, then abruptly died, leaving a bitter
taste in her mouth and a heart swollen with sadness and regret.
No. Ayumi does not deserve such venom; it is unworthy of
her. She has served me faithfully and well. I'm glad that she's
gone; better that my beloved not be caught in the Regent's web.
Better she be free...
Ayumi... wherever you are... I love you. Live and remember me.
She turned to Saneyoshi-sama. "Do what you must," Kimiko said proudly.
"I have lost everything tonight - husband, family and love. What
is left but death?"
Two guards grabbed her upper arms but the Regent said, "Be careful,
dolts!" He leaned closer to Kimiko. "Death would be too merciful
for you, niece. Tomorrow I will pronounce your sentence. Take her
to the dungeon!"
Kimiko walked to her doom with an erect, proud posture, ignoring
the stares and whispers, the round eyes peering at her from behind
shielding sleeves and fans.
She'd been willing to accept death at her own hands to salvage
her dignity, to protect her honor...
Nothing could touch her after that.
- Pride and Punishment
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial
Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Wellspring of the Mirror, audience hall of
the Kanpuko Fujiwara Saneyoshi
8 a.m., the first Hour of the Dragon
Fujiwara Saneyoshi, Regent of the Emperor
and most powerful man in the Floating World, knelt on his dais and
scowled down at the figure of his niece. They were alone; this was
internal clan business, which did not concern anyone else and would
be dealt with in private.
"Fujiwara no Kimiko, you are guilty of the
murder of your husband, Suwa Denbe," the Kanpuko said in a flat,
clipped tone. "You have failed in your duty and soiled the honor
of the clan. There are no excuses for your actions."
Kimiko knelt with her forehead pressed against
the floor. She no longer wore bridal costume; a strange female servant
had brought clean but plain kimonos to her cell that morning. Kimiko's
face was clean of paint and her long hair tied back haphazardly
with a grubby paper ribbon, but making an elegant appearance was
the least of her concerns.
As Saneyoshi-sama expanded on the theme of
giri, Kimiko let her mind wander back to the conclusion she'd drawn
last night. Being thrown unceremoniously into a dank, damp stone
cell with only a stack of moldy straw for a bed had given her plenty
of time for contemplation. Both Regent and Dowager had witnessed
the events first hand; why was her uncle insisting on interpreting
last evening in its worst possible light?
He protects himself and Lady Hisame,
she thought dispassionately. The girl had gone through so many emotional
highs and lows in the dark dungeon that now she felt only a vast
weariness. The Dowager knew about Ryoko and the hannya
all along. That is the only thing that makes sense.
Since the hannya hadn't attacked or
killed anyone of importance, the Dowager had allowed the situation
to continue, unwilling to admit her niece was possessed by a jealousy
demon. Lady Hisame probably hadn't found out until it was too late
to act discreetly. If a close member of the Emperor's family was
turned to evil, then the rest of the court would have demanded Kaika
be dethroned, lest this unwholesome connection taint the empire
at large. Civil war was the least one could expect from such a turn
of events; it was well known that there were other contenders for
the imperial seat who were held at bay only by the Dowager's intrigues
and her tentative control over military leaders.
That precarious situation could explode in
an instant if the nobles rose up to protest Kaika's rule.
Agreeing to my betrothal to Denbe served
an unholy purpose, Kimiko thought. If I'd been spared, she'd
have gained a measure of control over my uncle through marital ties.
But if I'd been killed by the hannya, my death would have
bound her and Saneyoshi more tightly together. Neither of them would
have wanted the truth to come to light. If Kaika lost his throne,
both of them would lose power, position and - most likely - their
lives. The noblest heads of the Empire are usually the first things
to be cut off in a civil war, and frankly, those two have more enemies
Her uncle had not known and that made the
hannya's appearance all the more shocking. He must have
realized in a moment what it would mean, she thought. Now
he must get rid of me with a pretense that sounds plausible, which
explains his accusation of murder. The other witnesses on the roof
will be convinced that the things they saw last night were hallucinations,
possibly brought on by contaminated incense and hysteria. It is
very easy to twist people's minds, play with their perceptions.
After carefully seeding the gossip mongers with lies and smoke,
in a week's time uncle-san will be able to find at least a dozen
witnesses ready to swear they saw me stab Denbe twenty times, cut
out his liver with a pair of chopsticks, and use his eyeballs as
gaming dice. Baka!
She snapped back to attention as Saneyoshi
finished his lecture.
"I can understand, child, why you found joining
with Denbe an unpalatable duty, but what kind of example will be
set if I let you go unpunished?" He gave the girl a patently false
look of benevolence. "As head of our clan, it falls to me to give
judgment in this matter."
Kimiko waited, wondering idly if he intended
a 'fatal accident' to befall her in the near future. She could not
rely on the Dowager's protection. For all her seeming friendliness,
the woman had tried to kill her once and failed.
"It is a tradition among the highest families
in Wa that, when their girl children merit punishment, she be condemned
to reside and work in Hanamachi for a period of one year." Saneyoshi
snapped his fan shut. "A palanquin has been ordered to remove you
from the palace immediately. Your personal effects will be delivered
to your destination later."
Kimiko almost gasped in shock and controlled
herself with an effort. Hanamachi? The Courtesan District? He expected
her to be a prostitute for a year?
The Regent continued, "You will be confined
to Nishikigi Soshi, the Brocade Tree brothel - a very respectable
establishment - and you are forbidden to leave that place until
twelve months have lapsed. Because of your high rank and despite
your lack of training, you will be an asobimi, the first
class of courtesan." He wiped a sleeve across his lips and frowned.
"I expect you to obey your new mistress in all things. If you displease
her, she has my permission to treat you no differently than any
other girl under her roof. Do you understand me, child? Get used
to having a lower station in life; your high-strung ways and spoiled
selfishness will not serve you well in the Willow World."
Kimiko sat upright and fixed her uncle with
a weary gaze. "Hai. I understand," she said softly.
Saneyoshi's frown grew more terrible. He
knew very well that his niece had the right to commit seppuku
if she found her punishment intolerable but frankly, he had more
use for the chit alive than dead. Girl children in any clan were
valued highly for the alliances they forged by marriage. He could
not afford to throw away a precious, future opportunity to further
cement his power and wanted to get Kimiko as far away from the Dowager's
sphere of influence as possible. Exile to Hanimachi was a just punishment
which might teach the stubborn wench a much-needed lesson in humility,
as well as keep her out of harm's way until the Denbe debacle had
time to cool down.
"If you should decide to take a knife to
your throat, niece, I will not prevent you," he said, having already
arranged to put a stop to any noble nonsense on the girl's part.
"However... it would be a pity if you chose the Rainbow Buddha's
mercy. Izumi is an old woman, hardly suited to the harshness of
poverty. Would you abandon her as well as life?"
An icy flush rippled across her flesh. Kimiko
understood the threat; if she did not submit, chose seppuku
instead of punishment, Izumi would suffer. "I will not be allowed
to take my maid with me?" she asked.
"No. Izumi will remain here in the palace.
I assure you, she will be well taken care of and will lack for nothing."
Kimiko allowed her shoulders to slump in
defeat. She'd already lost Ayumi; she would rather kiss Lord Emma's
black backside than be responsible for Izumi's downfall as well.
"Wakarimashita! I understand." She bowed again, knocking
her forehead against the floor in formal submission. "Giri compels
me to comply, honorable Saneyoshi-sama. I will do as you require."
The Regent sat back, satisfied. "I will receive
regular reports of your conduct and I expect to hear that you have
been obedient, courteous and determined to honorably bear your punishment.
In one year's time, we will meet again."
"Hai, my lord."
Saneyoshi dismissed her and Kimiko walked
slowly away, feet dragging as if reluctant to bear her to a terrible
Her destiny lay in Hanamachi, selling her
body to any man who could afford the price. Merchant, warrior, prince
or pauper... anyone's coin would do.
She felt no fear, only regret for what might
Oh, Ayumi, my love, where are you now?
In a forest miles away from Heian-kyo,
an infuriated samurai snarled, "What in the gods' name have you
Frightened birds wheeled up into the sky, screeching in panic.
Then a heavy, ominous silence descended upon the trees once again.
be continued in the next Tale of Unmei: Onna
Yugao - Lady of the Evening Faces)
to the Library